Fat Possum Records, the small label that the band Sunflower Bean records for, refers to the threesome as “veterans of the Brooklyn DIY scene.” DIY. That’s Brooklynese for indie. Cute. (Full disclosure: I’ve lived in Brooklyn for over a decade, but not the cool neighborhoods that get to coin record industry terms.)
Whatever you call them, Sunflower Bean has some real and varied rock chops, a thing heartening to hear in this age when any kind of musical chops – let alone a sense of popular music history -- seem increasingly rare. The lead singer, Julia Cumming, is also the bass player. Nick Kivlen sings back-up and plays guitar (and let’s get it out of the way: yes, he’s a dead ringer for Bob Dylan circa 1965). Jacob Faber is the drummer. They got started in 2013, when they were all in their late teens. Their youth hasn’t kept them from being serious musicians, a statement that’s true for many of the greats. These three have potential for sure.
And if my word doesn’t pass for street cred, the fact that they’re opening for The Pixies on tour this summer should do it.
As with many indie musicians, Sunflower Bean’s sound morphs from one sub-genre to another in an original blend. That’s not something to be ashamed of, according to a quote from Cumming on their Bandcamp page: “You’re allowed to obsess over Black Sabbath as well as The Cure.”
Heavy metal and punk do make frequent appearances in Sunflower Bean’s music, but so do British Invasion rock and roll as well as dreampop (alternative neo-psychedelia from the late ʼ80s, with the best-known practitioners being My Bloody Valentine).
That dreamy, off-kilter feel was present even in Sunflower Bean’s earliest work, as was the variety of styles. “Bread” is one of the band’s 2013 tracks marked on Bandcamp as “recorded in Christian Billard’s home studio,” which sure sounds indie to me. Simple, arpeggio-based melodies start the song, over synth and ethereal high-hat cymbals; vocal phrases swirl around each other. But without warning, the rhythm is shored up into a march-like, drum-driven duple around the 1:40 mark:
“Bread” was rereleased in 2014 as part of the EP Show Me Your Seven Secrets. Another older track on that collection was “2013” (which was released yet again on 2016’s Human Ceremony, the band’s most recent album). The opening riff is reminiscent of the original psychedelia movement: cue the colored oil slide projections and the bellbottoms. Unfortunately, the lyrics are punk-approved indecipherable.
And yet another facet of the band shows them sweet and melodic. The opening blast of “Shine a Light,” from the 2016 EP From the Basement, could be Queen circa 1978. But it’s just a musical representation of the light, apparently, since the song is unusually gentle, a sweet triple-time tune featuring Kivlen on both vocals (Cumming does backup a third above) and shimmery guitar patterns that sound almost like steel guitar until he increases the distortion. So, these guys don’t shy away from a touch of country! Their cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” has a similar vibe, this time sung primarily by Cumming.
There couldn’t be greater contrast between those tracks and “Tame Impala,” another song on From the Basement. One of their hardest head-banging tunes, it shows off Cumming’ bass playing with a relentless riff. And between her screeching voice and Kivlen’s robotic delivery of the words, you’ve got two of the classic punk approaches to singing, accompanied by enough crazy energy in the instruments to make Black Flag proud:
Sunflower Bean’s latest album (and their first full-length commercial venture) is Human Ceremony (2016). It’s a get-to-know-us endeavor that showcases all their skills, not to mention their distinctive worldview. Here’s “Creation Myth”:
Cumming demonstrates her vocal range with that mountainside of a melody. It took me the first five times to understand the one line of the chorus, “All in six days, Paradise on Earth”; diction is never Cumming’ strength, but that’s long been a badge of honor among songwriters trying to be mysterious or deep. Still, the construction of the song is intelligent, even if it seems haphazard at first listening. When Kivlen doubles Cumming’s vocals at the lower octave, it grounds the melody, forming the perfect earthward path to a ripping, raging heavy-metal guitar solo, like the continental plates cracking apart.
If “Creation Myth” has more than a touch of Radiohead’s perpetual motion drive, “Easier Said” shows influence from Blondie and the Cranberries, and not only because of how the platinum-haired Cumming is featured in the video. (It’s worth noting that Cumming has called this one her favorite song on the album.) Her singing has that slight detachment, as if she either does not understand the English she’s singing, doesn’t want you to know what she’s thinking, or is new to our planet. It’s an accepted means of singing for female leads, ever since the great Deborah Harry slid her way over a “Heart of Glass.”
Speaking of visiting other planets, Human Ceremony ends with “Space Exploration Disaster.” It’s a cross between the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Miles from Home” and the old Conan O’Brien shtick “In the year 2000.” With impressive layered textures from Kivlen’s guitar, it’s a showpiece for the rhythm section.
There’s also some subtle wit in the concept of this song. Just as O’Brien’s feature continued after the new millennium had begun, making it no longer a prediction of the future but a parody, the verses of “Space Exploration Disaster” hang on the line “In the year 2015…,” soothsaying about the very year the song was written as if it were a generation in the future.
Which makes me wonder, how firmly are those Sunflowers’ tongues planted in their cheeks, not just in this song, but in all of them?